By David Voreacos and Eben Novy-Williams
Qatari television executive Nasser al-Khelaifi is under investigation on suspicion of paying bribes to the former No. 2 official in world soccer in exchange for World Cup media rights, according to the Swiss attorney general.
Khelaifi, the chief executive officer of beIN Media Group LLC, a television network in Qatar, is suspected of bribing Jerome Valcke, formerly the FIFA general secretary, prosecutors said Thursday in a statement. Neither man has been charged. Khelaifi is also chairman of the Qatari-owned Paris St.-Germain soccer club.
The probe extends scrutiny of world soccer, has been in turmoil since U.S. prosecutors said in 2015 that soccer officials had taken almost $200 million in bribes from sports-marketing executives in the Americas seeking media and marketing rights to tournaments. The scandal unseated top leaders at FIFA, whose full name is the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, and cast a shadow over the World Cup, the planet’s most popular sporting event.
Swiss prosecutors said Thursday that they had opened a case in March 2017 against Khelaifi, Valcke and a businessman who wasn’t named on suspicion of fraud, bribery and criminal mismanagement. Swiss prosecutors opened a criminal case against Valcke in March 2016.
In their statement, prosecutors said Valcke is suspected of accepting “undue advantages from a businessman in the sports rights sector in connection with the award of media rights for certain countries at the FIFA World Cups in 2018, 2022, 2026 and 2030” and from Khelaifi over the awarding of media rights for certain countries in 2026 and 2030. FIFA hasn’t announced any media-rights deal with beIN for the 2026 or 2030 tournaments.
Joining the investigation are authorities from France, Greece, Italy and Spain, which helped search properties as part of the probe, according to the Swiss attorney general. The prosecutor’s statement made no reference to Paris St.-Germain.
A beIN spokesman acknowledged a search of its French offices by authorities on Thursday and said the company “refutes all accusations” made by the Swiss attorney general. “The company will fully cooperate with the authorities and is confident as to the future developments of this investigation,” the spokesman said.
Khelaifi, a former professional tennis player, is a friend and business associate of the Qatari royal family and the man behind Qatar’s billion-dollar push into global soccer. In addition to his other roles, he’s chairman of Qatar Sports Investments, an arm of the state’s investment fund. He’s also a member of the host committee for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
The PSG soccer club’s Qatari owners are trying to build a global sports brand. In August, Khelaifi spearheaded the club’s $500 million push for striker Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior, the 25-year-old Brazilian star known as Neymar. That deal doubled the previous record for a transfer signing.
The beIN sports network, spun off from Al Jazeera Media Network in December 2013, has also used Qatar’s deep pockets to disrupt global soccer media. Bidding higher than most — often three times its competitors — beIN has acquired several top-tier soccer rights, including live games from England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A and France’s Ligue 1. In 2011, when it was still a part of Al Jazeera, the company won the rights to televise the 2018 and 2022 World Cups across the Middle East and North Africa.